Ravel and Austria

For Ravel, Austria meant principally Vienna, whose musical heritage was dear to him through the figures of Mozart, Schubert, Johann Strauss, Mahler, and Schoenberg. The waltz inspired two of his major works, the Valses nobles et sentimentales and then La Valse itself, which Ravel had been meditating since 1906 when its proposed title was Wien, though the work was not completed until 1920. In an interview in 1920, he expressed his enthusiasm for the city: "One feels that the atmosphere of the city is impregnated with music, that the city, warmed by bright autumn sunshine, breathes music. ...It is precisely this old culture which distinguishes Vienna from other cities." (Neue freie Presse 29 January 1920, "Wiener eindrucke eines französischen Künstlers", trans. from German into French in Orenstein [1989] p. 343-344).


In October 1920 Ravel made his first visit to Vienna. On 20 and 22 October, he accompanied the singer Marya Freund in performances of Histoires naturelles and Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. He also attended a concert conducted by Oskar Fried at which his Rapsodie espagnole was performed twice. On 23 October he took part in a concert at the Kleiner Konzerthaussaal organised by Schoenberg, at which he and Alfred Casella played the two-piano version of La Valse, some seven weeks before the première of the orchestral version in Paris.

On this visit Ravel stayed with Alma Mahler, who left a colourful portrait of his manners and appearance in her memoirs. She claimed that he stayed for three weeks with her, but that seems to have been one of several exaggerations in her recollections. He did however spend time visiting museums, giving interviews, and seeing operas by Puccini (who was also visiting Vienna at the time), Richard Strauss (Die Frau ohne Schatten), as well as operetta by Léhar. Although he regretted not hearing any Mozart, he planned to spend a day in Salzburg on his return journey to Paris to visit the composer's house (Orenstein [1989] p.344).


Ravel came to Vienna in February to conduct Boléro and La Valse for Ida Rubinstein. He returned in March for the first Austrian performance of L'Enfant et les sortilèges. There is speculation that Ravel also met the pianist Paul Wittgenstein during this visit because it was around this time that he received the commission to write a concerto for the left-hand. (Nichols [2011] p.305).


Vienna was included in the European tour which Ravel undertook between January and April 1932, accompanied by Marguerite Long, to introduce his Concerto pour piano et orchestre en sol majeur. They were very well-received: the concert was attended by the President of the Republic, and when Ravel mounted the podium he was given an ovation which was reported as lasting for twenty minutes (Long [1971] p.65).

During this visit, they were invited to the home of Paul Wittgenstein for a dinner and a performance of the Concerto pour la main gauche en ré majeur, whose first performance Wittgenstein had given a few weeks earlier, but which Ravel had not yet heard in performance. On this occasion, the work was played with accompaniment from a second piano. Marguerite Long described how her forebodings rose as Wittgenstein confidentially told her that he had made some adjustments to the scoring, and he failed to act on her suggestion that he should warn Ravel beforehand. During the performance, Ravel's expression grew darker, and at the end he went up to Wittgenstein to say that this was not the way to play it at all. Wittgenstein defended himself and the sharp exchanges continued, even in in a subsequent correspondence when Wittgenstein said "Interpreters should not be slaves", and Ravel replied "Interpreters are slaves!". (Long [1971] p.86-88).